The Gear You Need to Bake the Hippest Homemade Bread Ever
I’ve been baking bread since my dad taught me how to knead when I was a wee toddler, just old enough to crack an egg. Now, bread-baking is all the rage in food nerd circles, much thanks to the popularity of the Tartine Bread book. And, really, the weeks-to-make bread recipe the book proffers creates some of the best homemade loaves your teeth have ever crunched.
But if you want to make the ultimate boule you’re gonna need a lot more than a great recipe. The gear you have in your kitchen can mean the difference between a great loaf and an amazing loaf. That said, there’s a lot of useless junk out there when it comes to bread. So to get a better idea of what gear is great and what’s a waste I’ve spent the last six months or so trying out all the bread-baking gear I could get my hands on. What follows is a look at what I deem to be the best possible tools for making the ultimate loaf.
The main recipe in the Tartine Bread book ($25) takes about two weeks to make and yields two loaves of crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, near-bakery-quality loaves. Bread that comes from this is truly the Ferrari of homemade boules. That said, it is the very definition of complex. So fair warning to those of you who want to try it—a Tartine loaf isn’t the best place to start if you’ve never made bread before and don’t know how perfectly kneaded dough should feel between your fingers. I tested all of the gadgets that follow using the Tartine recipe, so if you’re picturing me completely covered in flour and looking exhausted while I write this, you aren’t that far off.
The polar opposite of the Tartine Bread method is the central recipe in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day ($17.51). It takes about two hours to make the first batch, which yields enough dough to make four loaves. You can either bake it right away or leave the dough in your refrigerator for up to a week, pulling off a grapefruit-sized ball and popping it in the oven every time you want fresh bread. I was extremely skeptical about this recipe when I first baked it up, but the resulting loaves are this close to the crunchy/chewy beauty of Tartine bread. If you want to make a fantastic loaf of bread and you don’t want to spend two weeks doing it, this is going to be the best and closest alternative.
One of the gadgets I’m going to recommend—and, in fact, the one I will recommend above all the others—is a flour mill. More on that in a bit. But for now, The Homemade Flour Cookbook by Erin Alderson ($17), who writes the fantastic food blog Naturally Ella, is a perfect companion to a flour mill. One thing I learned when I got the flour mill is there’s a lot more to know about grinding flour then you’d think. Flour comes from wheat berries, there are two kinds—hard and soft—and within those are a series of subsets (red wheat, white wheat, winter wheat, you get it). In her book, Alderson lays out every single type of wheat and grain that you can toss into your mill, explains the unique characteristics of each, and provides some key recipes. If you’re going to get yourself a mill (and you should) I can’t recommend this book enough.
If you buy nothing else on this list, buy a NutriMill Grain Mill ($260). I could not believe the difference in the final product of my loaves when I made them with freshly ground flour. You can grind all sorts of things in a flour mill. In addition to grinding wheat berries, you can toss in dried corn, rye berries, dried beans and peas, quinoa, oats, and really anything at all that’s not greasy (greasy things can clog up the mill and basically render it inoperable—so no nuts). This particular grain mill was the highest-rated one I could find. It’s also huge, which is nice because it takes a lot of berries to make enough flour for a loaf of bread. One caveat: it’s loud. When this thing gets going, it sounds a bit like a jet engine. A noise-reducing cover is supplied, but it doesn’t make a big difference. The mill is a lot lighter than it looks, which is great if you have a small kitchen and have to carry it down from on-high storage like I do. The flour that results from the grinding process, because it’s so fresh, is much more moist than flour from the market, so you want to take that into account when baking up your loaves and adding liquid to your dough. The biggest test of a gadget like this is taste and you can really taste the difference in home-milled flour. It just tastes fresher, the flavors of the flour are more pronounced, and overall the bread is just more pleasing.
The grain mill ran neck-in-neck with a bread proofer when it came to which product made the most difference in my final loaves. In the end the proofer comes in second, simply because if you really wanted to you could mimic its benefits with a slightly warm oven and a cup of water. That said, I still consider the bread proofer to be a game changer. Get the Brød & Taylor proofer ($148). It’s a plastic box with a clear lid that has a heating element in the bottom. You fill a small tray with water, set the temperature (ideal bread-rising temps are around 82 degrees) and place your dough inside during its rising stage. This thing is large—I was able to easily fit the biggest bowl in my kitchen inside—but if folds down into a surprisingly flat, compact square for storage.
There is a HUGE difference between dough that’s left to rise on the counter and a loaf that proofs inside this box. For one, the loaf inside never needs to be covered by a towel or plastic wrap. Second, the temperature is consistent so there’s no need to worry about drafts or finding the perfect warm spot in your kitchen. And lastly, the water inside creates the ideal moist environment for the loaf to rise and be perfectly pliable for kneading afterwards. This makes a big difference to the crumb of the final loaf because the rising stage is the most essential. A bread proofer guarantees your loaf rises perfectly and consistently every time. I’ll never make bread without one again.
Bread-baking is, without question, a science. If you want to make the perfect loaf, abandon your measuring cups and start weighing your ingredients. There are an absurd number of scales to chose from when looking for a great way to weigh in your kitchen, but Escali’s Pana Volume and Weight Scale ($65) is by far my favorite. It was created by Escali in conjunction with the bakers in King Arthur Flour’s test kitchen, so it’s designed especially for bread makers. It has a massive 13-pound weight limit, can show volume in cup and tablespoon increments, and will display every possible type of weight (pounds, ounces, fractions of ounces, decimals of ounces, and grams). It also has hundreds of specific ingredients pre-programmed so you can, for example, tell it you’re weighing flour and it will then display the weight and volume of said flour at the same time.
At this point, you’ll notice that several of the gadgets I suggest come from King Arthur Flour. There are a lot of places you can buy bread gadgets, but I’ve found KAF has a reputation for selling high quality products, and the company’s staff are more or less the world’s experts on what it takes to make a great loaf.
Silpat is beloved among bakers for its non-stick silicone baking mats, which serve as re-usable alternatives to parchment paper. And those are fantastic tools, but the real genius product from Silpat is its large size Roul’Pat ($64). It’s a very large mat (23 by 31.5 inches), the ideal size for kneading, shaping, and generally manipulating a bread loaf. Just plop it down on your countertop and get to work. It will significantly change the way you clean up and, because its non-stick, it really makes a difference in helping handle moist doughs more easily. It’s a huge step up from how I used to deal with bread, which is to get it all stuck to my counter and then have to go through several stages of cleaning from wiping to scraping to wiping and then wiping again. The company also notes that literally nothing sticks to this thing so you can use it as a multi-purpose mat for crafting or whatever you see fit. Even permanent markers and glue come off easily.
In the Oven
There is nothing worse then rising up the most perfectly round loaf of bread, only to have it smashed to a mushy lump when you try to transfer it into the oven. A pizza peel is actually an excellent way to transfer bread from its rising location to its final baking place. This is especially true if you’re making the Tartine recipe or using a baking stone, because both of these instances will include you getting up-close-and-personal with a superheated bread receptacle that will burn the shit out of your hands if you accidentally graze it. It’s hard to find a bad pizza peel, but I recommend one with a wooden handle and a thin metal peel. The design is light, and the thin metal means bread (and pizza!) will slide off of it easily.
Baking steels are extremely popular among nerdy chefs these days. And you really will notice a difference when you use a flat slab of steel to make pizza. But for bread, there’s little difference between a baking steel and a baking stone. Using either a stone or a steel helps get your bread nice and hot, adding a great spring, and giving you a perfectly crusty bread bottom. It’s really a matter of preference which baking method you choose—I switch between them depending on my mood. The steel has the advantage of being unbreakable (stones can crack if they meet with a quick temperature change) but the steel weighs a bazillion pounds, which isn’t exactly ideal for hauling in and out of your oven on a regular basis. You could theoretically leave the stone or the steel in your oven all the time, but they will absorb heat and change the oven’s temperature. There are many great baking stones out there—just be sure you get one that’s sturdy, and don’t skimp because cheaper stones will break much more easily.
The Tartine book doesn’t outright name a particular cast iron cooker as the bread-baking tool of choice. However, it is Lodge’s Cast Iron Combo Cooker ($58) that appears in photos in the book, and it’s the one nerds online have resoundingly agreed is best for the Tartine recipe. Chad Robertson, the book’s author, lays out why he likes this device: When you put your bread loaf inside the hot pan and cover it, you create a steam oven—something professional bakers pay huge amounts of money to install in their kitchens. You can easily create the same “steam oven” effect by placing a pan of water into the oven with your bread. Steam is what makes a good crust, and it doesn’t really matter how you go about creating it. But for more consistent results, use a dutch oven. Bonus: The lid doubles as a frying pan.
Another interesting option is a cloche baker ($52), basically a combination of the baking stone with the dutch oven. When you toss your loaf inside this dome-shaped clay cooker and close the lid, you create a steam oven inside. It doesn’t really matter where you purchase your baking cloche—differences are mostly cosmetic—just make sure it’s sturdy and big enough for the loaf you want. If you don’t feel like lugging around a huge baking stone and you have enough cast iron implements at home already, then a cloche is a great choice.
The Tartine recipe makes two loaves of bread—more than most of us can realistically eat while it’s still fresh. You’re going to need a good method of storage. Bread boxes are fine, but they don’t really give you all that much control over how much moisture gets in or out of the loaf. Even the ones with controls on the side that open and close vents aren’t really that great. I always use KAF’s all-purpose plastic bread bags ($20), which are just like the ones you’d get with loaves from the store. They come in single and double widths (and if you’re making round loaves, you’ll need the double width). The bags give you control over how much air gets in. Loosen up the bag to let a little more air in if you’re worried about fast molding, or keep it nice and tight if you want to be sure it doesn’t dry up.
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